AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant achievement. The show is a vibrant look at the emerging personal computer industry in the early 1980s. But more than that, the show is about capitalism, creative destruction, and innovation.
While we all know the PC industry changed the world, the visionaries and creators who brought us into the information age faced uncertainty over what their efforts would yield. They risked everything to build new machines and to create shaky start-ups. Often they failed and lost all they had.
HCF has four main characters: Joe, a visionary and salesman; Cameron, an eccentric programming geek; Gordon, a misunderstood engineering genius; and Gordon’s wife, Donna, a brilliant but unappreciated housewife and engineer.
The show pits programmers, hardware engineers, investors, big businesses, corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, and competing start-ups against each other and, at times, shows them having to cooperate to overcome mutual problems. The result is innovation.
Lee Pace gives an award-worthy performance as Joe MacMillan. The son of a never-present IBM tycoon and a negligent, drug addicted mother, Joe struggles with a host of mental and emotional problems. He’s a man with a brilliant mind and an amazing vision — but he has no computer knowledge or capabilities.
The series begins with his leaving a sales job at IBM in the hope of hijacking Cardiff Electric, a small Texas-based computer company, and launching it into the personal computing game.
As part of his scheme, he gets a low-level job at Cardiff where he recruits Gordon Clark, played by the equally talented Scoot McNairy. Enamored with Gordon’s prior writings on the potential for widespread personal computer use, Joe pleads with Gordon to reverse engineer an IBM-PC with him. The plot delves into the ethical ambiguities of intellectual property law as the two spend days reverse engineering the IBM BIOS.
While the show is fiction, it is inspired in part by the real-life events of Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq. His book, Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing serves as a basis for many of the events in the show’s first season.
In 1981, when Canion and his cohorts set out to make a portable PC, the market was dominated by IBM. Because IBM had rushed their IBM-PC to market, the system was made up entirely of off-the-shelf components and other companies’ software.
As a result, it was possible to buy those same components and software and build what was known as an IBM “clone.” But these clones were only mostlycompatible with IBM. While they could run DOS, they may or may not have run other programs written for IBM-PCs.
Because IBM dominated the market, all the best software was being written for IBMs. Canion wanted to build a computer that was 100 percent IBM compatible but cheaper — and portable enough to move from desk to desk.
Canion said in an interview on the Internet History Podcast, “We didn’t want to copy their computer! We wanted to have access to the software that was written for their computer by other people.”
But in order to do that, he and his team had to reverse-engineer the IBM BIOS. They couldn’t just steal or copy the code because it was proprietary technology, but they could figure out what function the code executed and then write their own code to handle the same task.
What our lawyers told us was that not only can you not use [the copyrighted code], anybody that’s even looked at it — glanced at it — could taint the whole project. … We had two software people. One guy read the code and generated the functional specifications.
So it was like reading hieroglyphics. Figuring out what it does, then writing the specification for what it does. Then once he’s got that specification completed, he sort of hands it through a doorway or a window to another person who’s never seen IBM’s code, and he takes that spec and starts from scratch and writes our own code to be able to do the exact same function.
In Halt and Catch Fire, Joe uses this idea to push Cardiff into making their own PC by intentionally leaking to IBM that he and Gordon had indeed reversed engineered the BIOS. They recruit a young punk-rock programmer named Cameron Howe to write their own BIOS.
While Gordon, Cameron, and Joe all believe that they are the central piece of the plan, the truth is that they all need each other. They also need to get the bosses and investors at Cardiff on their side in order to succeed, which is hard to do after infuriating them. The show demonstrates that for an enterprise to succeed you need to have cooperation between people of varying skill sets and knowledge bases — and between capital and labor.
The series is an exploration of the chaos and creative destruction that goes into the process of innovation. The beginning of the first episode explains the show’s title:
HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could be regained.
The show takes this theme of racing for superiority to several levels: the characters, the industry, and finally the economy and the world as a whole.
As Gordon himself declares of the cut-throat environment in which computer innovation occurs, “It’s capitalism at its finest!” HFC depicts Randian heroes: businessmen, entrepreneurs, and creators fight against all odds in a race to change the world.
Now into its second season, the show is exploring the beginnings of the internet, and Cameron is running her own start-up company, Mutiny. I could go on about the outstanding production quality, but the real novelty here is a show where capitalists, entrepreneurs, and titans of industry are regarded as heroic.
Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant show, but it isn’t wildly popular. I fear it may soon be canceled, so be sure to check it out while it’s still around.
Keith Farrell is a freelance writer and political commentator.